Eleven years ago, Morris Jeff Community School opened with pre-kindergarteners through second graders, and built up, grade by grade, from there. This year, those second-graders will graduate as Morris Jeff’s very first senior class.

It is a graduation year like no other.

Students at Morris Jeff, like all New Orleans Public Schools, finished last year virtually and began this year virtually, as well. But, as of mid-September for preK-4th graders, and mid-October for older students, class is offered in-person, as well.

Morris Jeff teachers wait outside the elementary school building to welcome students.

All families can still choose whether in-person or virtual learning is right for them. The in-person option for grades 5-12 is a “hybrid” schedule in which they are on-campus two or three days a week and online for the others.

At Morris Jeff, 9-11th graders are nearly evenly split in terms of learning online or the hybrid mix of online and in-person. Seniors, though, are different: 80% have chosen to be on-campus.

And Shani Collins, a senior, provided one motivation a few days before school re-opened. “I have really missed my friends. I can’t wait to meet my teachers and to make new memories in the building even with all the rules and regulations. I am coming back to school to take everything in one last time before I graduate,” she said.

Lydell Hunter, a junior, shared his thoughts on his choice to learn in-person, too. “I can’t wait to get back to see everyone, even teachers, friends and new people,” he said.

The first days did not disappoint.

An elementary school student poses with their bear mask on.

Patricia Perkins, Morris Jeff’s Head of School, described the mood of the start of in-person learning with the school’s youngest students.

“There was an air of pure joy,” she said. “It was so sweet to see a student look up at her teacher and hold her arms across her chest like a hug.”

And when older students returned, that joyful mood continued.

Middle school students, back in the classroom

High school co-principals Tiffany Cherrie and Margaret Leaf wrote about what the first day back looked, felt, and sounded like:

“Health and safety protocols were in place for students and staff, students met expectations with their usual goodwill and good humor, and we learned together in community with our fellow Pelicans who participated from home via distance learning. Students lunching outdoors in the courtyard or on the green, taking guided walks through our neighborhood, washing hands, respecting one another’s space, and wearing eye-catching masks were all a part of this happy day of returning to high school at Morris Jeff.”

The day went so smoothly, in part, because it was practiced. Teachers did dry-runs together before students returned to campus. They practiced and worked together (at a distance) to get it right.

The day also went smoothly because it was well-planned.

“When we were planning for the fall semester back in the late spring and early summer, we tried our best to set a schedule for distance learning that could be mirrored when students returned to the building,” Perkins said.

Morris Jeff’s Elementary and Middle School Campus

High school students are in small, static groups that spend the day together, with a single teacher that leads one subject and then supervises them as they learn from other teachers on computers in-class. This allows virtual and in-person learners to be in class simultaneously.

Perkins believes that having two principals is also key for Morris Jeff right now.

“We have co-principals that lead together right now. There’s a lot of strength in that…especially with COVID times, there’s strength in community, and with shared leadership at the top, what we are capable of is a bit different.”

That shared leadership is working. Crystal Daspit is both a Morris Jeff parent and team member. Her children have returned to in-person learning through the hybrid schedule, and they are excited about it.

“My two boys are high-school students at Morris Jeff,” she explained. “And I have no doubt they’re going to have a healthy, positive experience on campus…they’re happy to be back in school, even if it doesn’t look exactly the same. They’re like, ‘we just want to be with other people our own age.’”

Now, they have the chance to. Our world has changed in so many ways, and the school day looks more different than ever before. But at Morris Jeff, it remains joyful, rigorous, and warm.

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